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Fiction Psychological

Dancing in the Dark

by (author) Joan Barfoot

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
May 2006
Psychological, Crime, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2006
    List Price

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Edna Cormick, forty-three, is incarcerated in a mental hospital for murdering her husband. For twenty years, Edna escaped the world by devoting herself to the health and welfare of her husband and home, so when she learns he’s been having an affair, her sense of betrayal is devastating and literally maddening. And so she sits, silently filling notebooks, trying to find where and how her life went wrong. Dancing in the Dark is a tightly woven psychological novel, which explores the idea that madness is not necessarily self-destructive, and may lead to a kind of wisdom.

About the author

Joan Barfoot is one of the most engaging, entertaining, and original voices in contemporary fiction; her eleven novels capture the lives of people as they lived in the last twenty years of the 20th century and the first twenty years of the 21st. Readable and sophisticated, her work has been frequently compared to Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Drabble, and Fay Weldon. Her novels have been nominated for, or won, numerous prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Books in Canada (now First Novel Award, and the Man Booker Prize, and they have been translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Danish. She is also the recipient of the Marian Engel Award. Her novel, Dancing in the Dark, was adapted to an award-winning feature film by the same name and it was entered into competition at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. At the peak of her powers, Joan Barfoot’s books are splendidly realized tragicomedies with note-perfect narration, mordant wit, and wonderfully neurotic casts of characters; she shows us human relationships revealed in all their absurdity and complexity. The body of her work can best be described as scintillating comedies of manners which are also profound meditations on fate, love, and artifice.

Joan Barfoot's profile page

Excerpt: Dancing in the Dark (by (author) Joan Barfoot)


I bind my wounds with paper; with this blue notebook, a garish shade not eggshell nor sky nor water, but a colour too blunt and striking. There are spaces on the cover labelled, in black print, Name ____________; and below that, Subject ____________. The date is August 17. I asked the ­nurse.

In tiny print in the bottom left-­hand corner it says the book is printed with recycled paper. And that, I think, is good. I have always approved of that sort of thing, when I have thought about ­it.

Inside, the notebook is lined thinly with grey, a pink stripe marking a margin at the side of each page, three holes cut into each margin, round and precise, not at all like the holes, irregular and unspaced, made by a knife in a body. There is a comforting neatness about this book, so one feels compelled either to leave it blank or to write in it carefully, perfectly, and with a certain pain in the ­perfection.

I appreciate things that are careful, complete, and perfect. This day, for instance. I am fortunate to have a place beside the big window, so that I can look out without ­obstruction.

Here, of course, there is an unchanging temperature, an untouchability in the atmosphere. So I cannot tell if outside it is uncomfortably hot, but I think not; I think it is a day in which heat soaks the body like a liniment and ­heals.

Yesterday it rained. But since I am safe inside here, that too was fine, and I watched the greyness falling ­mist-­like. The result of the rain is that in today’s sunshine there is an extra greenness, an ­almost-­too-­shrill brightness. It is all quite clearly defined; there are perceptible boundaries between the green of the grass and the ­tree-­trunk-­grey and the deep green leaves, no blending to ­confuse.

On such a day the mind should also be ­distinct.

It is the details with which I may occupy myself, nothing larger than this room, this body. I shall attempt neatness and keep removed from ­passion.

The bed is narrow, sheeted with white, coarse. The bed I used to have was wide, the sheets were blue and in the winter covered by the deep down quilt made far back in my mother’s family, in aging rags of blue, soft yellow checkered red and white. That bed did not have buttons to be pushed that raise shiny steel bars at the sides, an extra bulk that spoils the simplicity of the lines. And it was softer too, while this one is hard and tightly ­wrapped.

There are two such beds in this room. One is mine, and I am careful to stay in it, or near it, never stray too far, for although it may be strange and ugly, it is also ­mine.

I can reach out and touch it from where I sit in the easy chair, the ­blue-­and-­purple-­patterned chair that fills the space between the narrow bed and the wide, ­heavy-­glass window. I sit with my legs crossed at the ankles, back pressed firmly against the chair, blue notebook opened squarely on my lap, my knees touching the base of the window ledge while still in my line of vision on the other side is the glimpse of unwrinkled ­sheet-­whiteness. Three feet, perhaps, between bed and ­window.

It is precisely the right amount of space. This much I can manage, most ­days.

At the foot of my bed, a narrow pathway distant, is a dresser, a double one that extends the width of my bed and beyond into the other half of the room, a double dresser with mirror, drawers of underwear shared, split into mine and other. Over the centre of my half is a cheap framed landscape, autumn trees with unreal red and gold leaves, a ­too-­blue stream running past ­steel-­grey rocks. Not the sort of painting I would choose, and yet it is oddly right for this ­room.

Overhead there is a fluorescent light, switched on at dusk and on dull days. Attached to the headboard of the bed is a reading lamp, which must not be used after a certain hour. When it gets dark, ­cream-­coloured curtains are drawn across the windows and there is no more to ­see.

It is a puzzling ­half-­room, clumsily warm, but not personal. Some things I like about it though: that it is arranged in straight lines; that it is always in order; that I am responsible for none of ­it.

The days are slow, events are rare. No one makes me move. The farthest I go from my narrow ­half-­room is to the dining area three times a day; the second farthest when I again pass the other bed, the other half of the double dresser, the second and ­near-­identical landscape on the wall, the closet, to go to the washroom. There are two of us in this room, with a washroom connecting with two others in the next room. To be sure of privacy in the bathroom, it is necessary to lock two doors: the one from Room 201, which is mine, and the one from Room 203, which is next door. Sometimes when I sit on the toilet and do not care to move, for it is white and bright in there, a door handle may move and there may be a muffled remark, but I pay no attention. To move, even if I wanted to, is an effort of will, and I am somewhat short of will these ­days.

And too, consumed as I am by the trivialities of my own existence, a piece of lint on my housecoat, the glint of a straight pin on the carpet by my chair – and how would such a thing get there if not through me, and I have no use for straight pins, a puzzle to occupy some moments – how should I then have attention for those others? I am careful not to see them. I want to know nothing about them. I take special care in my own ­half-­room never to glance beyond my bed, never to acknowledge the mutters and rustlings from the other bed, never to meet eyes. If it were possible, I would roll my eyes inward and stare only at ­myself.

When I am to be dressed, someone does it for me. They get me up and seat me; sometimes even brush my teeth. I would have my food, too, spooned into me except that that would make a contact, it would be difficult to avoid the eyes and too much trouble, and so I feed myself. I wait, though, until the meat has been cut for me. Otherwise I would have to take it in my hands to gnaw, for I cannot imagine myself carving it ­up.

Editorial Reviews

“A powerful story of obsession, infidelity and retribution.”
–Toronto Star
“A mournful but brilliant song ... Barfoot adds a new and chilling dimension to the old Christian truth that it is only through death that there is life.”
–Windsor Star
“You can hardly bear to put it down.”
–London Free Press
“So fluently and fluidly styled that you often forget you are reading.”
–Edmonton Journal

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